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THE NATION : Congressional Drive-bys: The Real Warfare Is Generational

March 19, 1995|John Heilemann | John Heilemann is Washington correspondent for the Economist

WASHINGTON — Newly elected Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) looks like one of the law-and-orderliest guys alive. But after his recent attacks on his party's elders, it seems that, given the proper weaponry, he'd fit right in with the nastiest street gangs Los Angeles or Chicago has to offer. Pick any such posse and you'll find plenty like him: young, brash, brutal and deeply worrying to the gang's older, cooler, more businesslike leaders. "We know we need these wild boys to do business," a Chicago gang veteran told me last fall. "We also know they'd smoke us in a second to make a name for themselves."

So when Santorum and some of his fellow Senate freshman took aim at 72-year-old Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) for his vote against the balanced-budget amendment, it raised the question: Are congressional Republicans turning into the Crips of Capitol Hill?

Not exactly. Gangbangers kill innocent kids; Republicans just kill programs that help innocent kids. GOP congressmen do religiously wear their crew's chosen colors--but you're not likely to see many rappers turning up on MTV in boxy blue suits and stripy red ties. Even so, in important respects the analogy holds. The GOP's Old Bulls need their Young Turks to help pull off the revolution. But tensions between the generations are growing fast and getting ugly. If the party doesn't deal with them, a serious blood bath awaits.

How serious? The Hatfield drive-by was one noisy clue. But last week provided two silent hints that were far more significant. For while House Republicans rejoiced over passing $17 billion in spending cuts on Thursday, what they were less keen to talk about were scheduled votes on term limits (in the House) and the line-item veto (in the Senate) that had to be postponed when it became clear both were headed for failure. In each case, the culprit was dissension within the party. And in each case, the dissension was less ideological than generational.

This intra-GOP rift was in the cards. The sheer number of newcomers swept into the Senate and House last November more or less guaranteed it. In the upper chamber, 11 of the 53 Republican seats are held by new members. In the lower chamber, the party's incoming class totals a staggering 73. Incredibly, more than half of all sitting House Republicans were elected in 1992 and 1994.

Each group has its own character. Many Senate freshmen, including Santorum, came directly from the House--where they were weaned in the 1980s on supply-side economics and scorched-earth politics. They are Reaganites. The House freshman are more Perotist. Many are protectionists, most hated the idea of a Mexican bailout. All worship Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). They will go to almost any length imaginable--from sleeping on their office sofas to ritually chanting, "There's no place like home" into talk-radio microphones--to show they are not becoming creatures from inside the Beltway. One especially Spartan Tennessean, Zach Wamp, went so far as to suggest building congressional barracks on two local military bases.

Yet more unites the two sets of Republican homeboys than divides them. Both are possessed of a near missionary zeal to cut spending. Both hate taxes. Both hate welfare. Both recognize their power as a voting bloc--and hold meetings to figure out ways to exercise it. And both have their share of frustrations with the grand old men of the Grand Old Party. "Things don't change around here and nobody wants them to," moans Santorum. "Particularly the people who hold power." His superiors, that is.

Irritation among the newcomers was inevitable in the Senate--where the stately pace and arcane rules of order would test the patience of Job, let alone a bomb-thrower like Santorum. Freshmen gripe about wasting five weeks debating the balanced-budget amendment, when the House took just two days, and then losing anyway. To old Senate hands, this is part of the place's charm. But what makes the Senate even more ripe for conflict is that many of those same old hands are committee chairmen, like Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), whose moderate views make them unwilling participants in any quasi-Newtonian jihad.

It's this split that has put the line-item veto in jeopardy. The younger, right-wing slice of the party has rallied behind a proposal by John McCain (R-Ariz), while moderates, fearing McCain's version cedes too much institutional power to the President, are backing a watered-down bill offered by Domenici. "It's all generational," McCain said. "The longer they've been around, the more they tend to support Pete."

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